In its heyday, the Gas Compressor Institute was the biggest show in town, along with its counterparts, the Measurement and Pipeline institutes. Three times a year, hotels in Liberal, Kansas, filled to capacity, restaurants saw waiting lines snake out the door into the parking lot, and laughter and deal-making enlivened every club in town.
“The Gas Compressor Institute was bigger than pheasant season,” said Don Ukens, owner and operator of End2End Technologies, and longtime wireless data provider in the field.
Mike Riedel of Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Company recalls those glory days when the institutes capitalized on a large workforce earning solid wages for companies with ever-increasing profit margins.
The combination fueled a commitment to ongoing education in order to keep pace with technological advances. It was a thrilling time, with new inventions and methods that promised to extend the boom indefinitely. The MPI brought a sense of national importance and hundreds of professionals to Liberal.
“When I first got involved, whoever was the district manager at whatever big oil and gas company we’re talking about, wanted to send their people at the MPI,” Riedel said. “They knew the institute would get someone who was the expert in the field – in the world – to come out to Liberal, Kansas. It was a win-win; you send your people a short distance and they get training that benefits the company.”
Fast-forward some 30-plus years, and while the open-horizon landscape of the High Plains has remained largely unchanged, that may be the only constant. Rapid developments in technology and the inevitable ups and downs of the energy industry mean the world of energy in 2015 looks nothing like it did when the institutes began.
The boom-and-bust cycle took its toll. So did recessions, various energy crises domestic and international, and the ever-changing political climate. Then there’s the argument about climate change, and wishful thinking about alternative energy sources. Through it all, ordinary people kept driving cars, adjusting the thermostat on the furnace during winter’s bitterest cold, and taking hot showers.
Clearly, the energy industry remained a critical part of modern life. It was also clear the need for continuing education, networking and industry support remained. What the institute organizers realized, however, was that delivery of education must mirror the culture. Industry professionals in 2015 are accustomed to speed and productivity that were unimaginable in the 1980s. Information travels at lightning speed. Distance and time have been compressed by technology. Shale drilling and horizontal sourcing has sent the industry back to the learning mode.
And, when it comes to an opportunity to learn, network and collaborate, three weeks of separate training no longer made sense.
That’s why the directors of the Petroleum industry Education organization created the Southwest Energy Institute. The new event, set for April 27-30 at the Seward County Activity Center. As in past institutes, the three-day event will include many opportunities for relaxation and networking, with a crawfish boil in nearby Hugoton, Kansas, and the 12th Annual Breeze Master Golf Tournament hosted by Willow Tree Golf Course in Liberal.
For 63 years, organizers noted, the group has brought new concepts and training to the entire Midwest Region through annual events and scholarship funding. Riedel joined the board in 1986, but for several years before that he appeared at the Institute as a speaker. Initially, the group partnered with the University of Kansas to design educational components and organize the venture.
Back in the day, Riedel recalled, the Gas Compressor Institute ascended to outsize its partner events.
“That aspect of the industry has more things to break, you could say, and more problems to address,” he explained. With high demand for training and new technology, vendors – 150 at the high mark – stood ready to offer solutions.
“We actually had to cap the number of exhibitors, turn people away,” Ukens said. “When it was going big, they’d have a hospitality room going at the local hotel, and actually rent the whole first floor for the event.”
Those were the days of the Petroleum Club, a private social club with a high-tone restaurant positioned at the Six Points intersection on the southeast corner of Liberal. The Petroleum Club drew members clad in golden blazers to exclusive cocktail hour events and high-rollers picked up enormous tabs for colleagues and new connections.
“It was big-time,” Ukens said. “The people attending these events, all of ’em were the bosses. This was in the late 1980s and early 90s. And the PIE group was very political, lots of lobbying going on, lots of requests for policy that would help the whole industry.
Then, in 1993, everything changed.
“The big companies basically halved their work force. They did it in one day, June 21, 1993,” Riedel said.
“This was especially rough at Northern Natural Gas and Panhandle Eastern Pipeline.”
The upheaval was prompted by shifts in the industry, both geological and political.
“When I first started, and I’ve been in it 35 years, the static pressure in the Hugoton Field and the whole region came out at 250 psi,” Ukens said. “Now, you have to almost pull it out, like a vacuum.” While the low mark was still far off in 1993, deregulation had already begun to spook the large corporations and their shareholders.
“Once the legislators voted to deregulate, the industry started to be more market-driven,” said Riedel.
Downsizing continued in the years that followed, “and when you downsize, there just are the same number of people to draw from” for attendance at training events like the Institutes.
“From the management point of view, it became a problem to let employees leave work to attend,” Riedel said. “As the field went down, there was no reason to keep people employed, and our attendance went down. Somewhere in there, we started to combine institutes, and put the measurement and pipeline events together.”
Other adjustments made sense, as the institutes scrambled to meet the needs of stakeholders. In 1996, PIE opted to transfer management of the institutes to Seward County Community College, later SCCC/Area Technical School.
“The partnership had become a remote operation, and we really needed an educational institution there on the ground with us, responding to what we needed in terms of running the event, along with taking registrations and printing materials,” Riedel said. “We decided to look elsewhere, and it turned out we didn’t need to look far from home. It made sense to ask SCCC to work with us.”
In the years that followed, the institutes continued to adapt.
“Every time the industry automates a task, it does away with another warm body,” Riedel said. “There used to be 20 measurement techs; now they get along with four or five.” Furthermore, those techs often train on the job. Along the way, Ukens and Riedel observed, expedience sometimes replaces expertise.
Mike recalls holding up what was once a standard piece of equipment in the gas collection process and asking, “Does anybody know what the orifice plate does?”
Ukens believes the rapid transformation in the industry has increased the importance of the Institutes.
“I’m going to suggest these shifts make our training more valuable,” he said. “The content is still worthwhile, very much, and really, what we provide has allowed the industry to do well.”
That in turn allows the region and its inhabitants to live well.
“Nobody really stops to think about the part that hydrocarbon energy plays in our everyday lives,” Ukens noted. “Alternative energy is popular to talk about, but the same percentage of our vital needs is still powered by hydrocarbon. People need it, which means they still need us.”
The institutes meet that need, particularly as the longtime participants begin to reach retirement age.
“Like my peers, like Mike and the other committee members, I don’t really have to do this anymore,” Ukens said of his membership on the PIE board. “I keep going because I like being part of something that is still of great value.”